THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, by Michel Faber. Hogarth, 500 pp., $28.
Whether you get a kick out of Michel Faber's deeply earnest and spiritual new novel, "The Book of Strange New Things," might wholly depend on which side you'd come down in a bookish version of those pop-Christian bumper stickers: Know Jesus, know this novel/No Jesus, no this novel.
Set in a dystopian future, the "The Book of Strange New Things" follows Englishman Peter Leigh, a thirty-something former alcoholic and drug addict who's found Christ through his devoted wife, Beatrice. "I never went to Bible School," he tells one character. "I went to the University of Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse."
After a relentless selection process, Peter has been chosen from among thousands to minister to the inhabitants of a planet called Oasis, where a shadowy global organization called USIC has set up an extraterrestrial colony.
On Oasis, Peter finds rain that arrives in odd swirling formations and the air is "a presence so palpable" it seems as if it could "catch him like a pillow." When he finally meets the Oasans, he's shocked and delighted to learn that they're hungry for the teachings of the Bible -- "The Book of Strange New Things" -- thanks to a previous missionary, who mysteriously vanished.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Beatrice's world is literally falling apart. Earthquakes and food shortages rock England, a monster cyclone slams North Korea, a volcano destroys a huge Guatemalan city, and the wealthiest Seattleites are dragged from their homes and murdered during a massive blackout.
On top of it all, Beatrice learns she's pregnant with Peter's child. Will he choose his family and return to our broken world? Or remain above it all, among his devout, alien flock? "None of it will seem real to you up there," Beatrice laments. "You are spooning Bible verses into the hungry mouths of Oasans, I appreciate that."
Faber is a fine writer and a wonderful storyteller, and the "The Book of Strange New Things" often wrestles admirably with questions of community and faith, of loyalty and love and loneliness. Its almost 500 pages, if a few more than necessary, move along apace, and there are particularly profound moments late in the novel.
But, in the end, if you don't get a charge out of the Christian response to big existential questions, if your tastes run a little more toward the profane than the pious, "The Book of Strange New Things" might feel a little too sober. And as one character puts it late in the novel, "I cannot stand a guy who won't have a drink with you."